Q&A James Smither

by Mary Isca Pirkola        photo by Elizabeth Lienau

History professor James Smither has personally interviewed about 700 American military veterans over the past six years.

As director of Grand Valley’s Veterans History Project, he collects and preserves the personal accounts of veterans, from World War I to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and makes the stories accessible to everyone, in part, through a project with the Library of Congress.

Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 to collect and archive the personal accounts of American war veterans. How did you get involved?

My first actual work in this field was doing a live presentation with World War II veterans in 2003. I was on stage with three men who fought on D-Day, and Ralph Hauenstein, who served on Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s intelligence staff. The event was organized by the people who were trying to bring a military museum to Grand Rapids. They had reached out to me and others from many of the area colleges and libraries.

You had developed a military history course at Grand Valley, but it was not your primary area of expertise then, right?

Military history has been an interest of mine since childhood, but at the time, European history was my primary teaching focus. Then there I was on a stage, talking with people who actually lived the history I’d read about for years. As someone who trained in the study of the Renaissance, you really can’t do that. So this was pretty cool.

How did Grand Valley become involved?

James Smither, director of Veterans History Project

After the plans for a military museum fell through in 2005, I set up the Veterans History Project at Grand Valley, through the Department of History. My main goal was to simply continue to conduct interviews of veterans, to archive the hundreds of interviews that this group had recorded, and to complete a documentary film we were working on with the School of Communications. The interviews hadn’t been processed yet to send to the Library of Congress. It has actually taken us until this year to work our way through the backlog of older interviews and the hundreds we have done since then.

You also created an online home for these interviews at Grand Valley, which includes more than 1,000 interviews. How are the projects different?

The Library of Congress Project is geared for the general public and doesn’t provide for the expanded type of thing we want to do. With the Grand Valley project, we allow veterans the opportunity to record a very complete and chronological biography of their experience, as a historical record available to researchers. So I have some interviews that go as long as six hours, recorded over two or three sessions.

To get an interview up on the websites, we not only have to produce a DVD, with time codes embedded into it for a searchable database, we then have to assign people to do the summaries and outlines, which all have to be digitized. It all takes a lot of time.

What kind of support do you have?

We get a lot of in-kind support from the university, especially from the library’s Special Collections, as well as some funding, but we rely heavily on private support. There is now a Veterans History Project Endowment fund at Grand Valley, thanks to the continued support of Don Jandernoa and others. We use the money largely for video processing and to hire student workers who perform a variety of tasks for the project. We also have student interns and rely on the help of volunteers who recruit veterans and, in some cases, conduct interviews.

What is the biggest challenge in capturing veterans’ stories?

Getting to the veterans while they are both willing and able to tell their stories. Many vets don’t discuss their experiences at all when they are younger. World War II vets mostly began to talk about it 40 years afterward. It’s now 40-50 years after Vietnam and those guys are now starting to talk.

The youngest Vietnam vets are going to be in their 60s now, and then there are guys in their 70s and 80s. Now is the time to capture them. Ideally you want to interview vets right when they come back home. But many of those who went to Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t yet processed their experience enough to talk to us about it.

Your current focus on Vietnam veterans has manifested in more than 100 interviews, a book project and public presentations. Are their stories similar or distinct? 

I had a lot of stories that don’t usually make it into published works. Most books on Vietnam are about combat, because that’s what sells. My own projects include that, but what about everyone else? Most people who went to Vietnam were something other than combat infantry, including engineers, truck drivers, military police, medical personnel and others, and they saw and did all sorts of things that tend not to make it into the books, but add depth and perspective to the larger story.          

As a historian, the important thing I’m doing is getting these interviews recorded. Once preserved, people hundreds of years from now can still access it. That’s the really cool part of it for me.

Another goal of your work with Vietnam veterans has been to help dispel stereotypes. What do you hope people learn?

The issues of race, drug use and war crimes grabbed a lot of headlines during the Vietnam War and gave the public a perception that these were widespread. All of these do appear in some interviews, but are a much smaller part of the experiences of most Vietnam vets than people assume.

There’s also the general assumptions that being enrolled in college kept you out of the draft, and that the working-class guys got sent to the front lines of combat while the “fortunate sons” of the wealthy or influential were kept out of harm’s way. But deferments were temporary, and plenty of college guys were drafted, and people from all walks of life found themselves in all sorts of situations.

What I’ve learned is that your experience depended mostly on what year of the war you went into the service, what your assignment was, where you were based and something as simple as what day you were in or out of the field.

“My Year in Vietnam” has been ongoing since September and will continue at least into April. Did you expect so many participants to come forward?

We had a tremendous response, enabling us to put together 10 panels, each featuring three veterans with something in common: the time or location they served, or military branch, for example.


My Year in Vietnam
Vietnam Veterans Share Their Stories

All presentations are free and open to the public at 7 p.m. in the DeVos Center, Loosemore Auditorium, unless otherwise indicated.  

• December 3 After Tet, 1968-69: Ron Howell, Dennis Bassett, Tom Sibley

• January 9 With the Marines: Ron Oakes, Rich Jakubczak, Jim VandenBosch

• Week of Jan. 27, 2014 With the Calvary: Barry McAlpine, Mike McGregor, Rich Dorsey
(at Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum)

• February 18 Odd Job Men: Jim Dykstra, Rex Greenawalt, David Guevara

• March 18 Cambodia and Ripcord, 1970: Al Walker, Bob Anderson, Jeff Wilcox (at Aquinas College Donnelly Center)

• April 9 Vietnamization and Withdrawal: Joe Lange, Alan Vande Vusse, Gabe Hudson

Details at www.gvsu.edu/vethistory.



 

Page last modified March 14, 2014